Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Smoky Side of Ale

It started with Liquid Bacon, the mouth-watering, mesquite chewy smoked copper ale from Hunter Beer Co. at the edge of Australia's Hunter Valley wine region that lived up to its name when I first tried it in 2009. Then it moved to the smoked bock that the SandLot Brewery served the next summer, not as full of barbecuey goodness but still packed with smoke in a lighter-bodied beer.

Now, the welcoming club of smoked beers that aren't porters has a new member in the William Wallace Scotch Ale being poured down at Denver Beer Co. And it is every bit as chew-worthy - and, according to its brewer, as polarizing - as the other beers that have come from this style.

The smoked porter, popularized by Alaskan Brewing, is, at this point, a semi-common option for most breweries. The dark malt cloaks the smoke and makes it perceptible only as an add-on rather than a main flavoring, giving just a hint of spiciness to the common murky character of the style.

But lighter-bodies beers that have a flavor of smoke to them are riskier, as the smoke stands out far more prominently. And there you walk a think line between brews that taste like the liquid equivalent of a sumptuous rack of ribs and beers that taste like a fire fighter's uniform was substituted for hops as a late-boil addition.
William Wallace (think: "Follow me ... to the BBQ pit!") comes at you with a giant mesquite smoked flavor from the first sip, swaddling it in sweet Scottish malts but clearly letting it be the star of the show. As the beer warms, the sweet and the charred intermingle more, giving you a mouth-filling taste of such magnitude that even the brewery's GABF-award-winning Graham Cracker Porter can't match.

Brewer Charlie Berger stopped by the table to take my compliment on the beer but then mention that it might be the most polarizing beer that the 5-month-old brewery has concocted. (The comment seemed especially appropriate as The Beer Geekette, a Scotch ale fan, passed it off to me to drink because she couldn't take the smoke.) Yet, Charlie should take that as a compliment.

When you make a beer this heavy in flavor, some people are naturally going to turn away, asking for something that is plainly easier. Yet, I hope more breweries get the gumption to infuse mesquite smoke - or other flavors we as a beer community haven't yet thought of - to continually challenge our taste buds.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

What I Learned from Big Beers 2012

All six members of the Fearless Tasting Crew noticed it and agreed: There was a feeling that something was different, and better, about the 2012 Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines festival this weekend.

Maybe dividing the high-alcoholfest over two rooms on separate floors opened the space up enough to make it feel more pleasant. Maybe the educational seminars, which felt directed to brewers and beer geeks rather than casual drinkers, were a little better. Or maybe there was this: The first time I tasted a beer that I didn't like, I looked down at my watch and realized it was 4:07 p.m. - one hour and 37 minutes into the show.

A festival that can bring out the best experiments in the brewing community - but also some concoctions that shouldn't see the light of day again - this year featured things both daring and shockingly drinkable. Even Avery's Coffeestopheles Stout, the 16.4 percent coffee/alcohol bomb formerly known as Meph Addict, felt just a little easier on the palate without losing any of its gusto.

With that said, here's a few things I learned at the festival:

* The Bruery is quickly evolving into one of the top breweries in America. If there was a beer of the fest, it was Partridge in a Pear Tree, the 3-year-old Belgian-style dark strong ale that presented itself as spicy on the nose, black and sweet on the palate and slightly sour with aged dried fruit. The Orange County beermaker also created the best beer of this Christmas season, Four Calling Birds, and continues to dazzle.

* Brettanomyces and hops really do make a great combination. Crooked Stave's Wild Wild Brett Green combined the magical yeast strain with three pounds of hops per barrel of beer and created a layered and unique hop bomb that stood out among a host of grassy beers.

* Brettanomyces and red wine barrels also make a wonderful partnership, as Surly Brewing showed quite ably with Five, a brett-fermented dark ale that walloped you with tart cherries. It jolted your taste bud at every sip. If only it was sold in Colorado ...

* Coffee and big beers are a combination of which we should see more. Between Coffeestopheles Stout (worth a trip to Avery's taproom if you have a designated driver), Ballast Point's Victory at Sea Imperial Porter (the most drinkable 10% porter ever) and Great Divide's Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout (a known entity, but one that proved its heft against the others in the room), there was a series of tastebud-rocking efforts adding a new twist to the known big and dark beers.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Good Cheers and Big Beers

It's the wonderful weekend of the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail, one of the finest brewfests in Colorado each year. And while there will be more to discuss afterward - after deciding which of the multiple seminars to attend and which of the 200 or so strong beers to sample - there's at least two pieces of good news at the start.

First, from the festival website, all attendees get a $5 food ticket with their admission this year. I would say this is an added bonus all festivals should consider. Too many people - the Fearless Tasting Crew included - get too wrapped up in the beer selection and simply forget to put anything in their stomach to cushion the impact of drinking. This will provide an incentive to do that, at the least.

Second, a source - we'll just call him "Gary from Colorado Craft Beer Radio" - tells that the tasting portion of the the event will be spread out between two rooms this year. This is an even better move for the festival. No one has ever complained about the worldwide, rare selection of beers available at this gathering. But occasionally, the central tasting area has become so crowded that you have to ping-pong your way from table to table. Spreading it out will ensure everyone has a more pleasant good time, and festival organizers should be lauded for it.

If you don't have tickets yet, they are still available. And - shameless plug alert - if you're going up today but don't have plans for tonight - feel free to stop by Crazy Mountain Brewing in Edwards for a "Mountain Brew" book-signing.


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